Illini volleyball advanced to the NCAA championship match for the first time in school history.
Jan. 12, 2012
Champaign, Ill. -
by Mike Koon, Illinois Athletic Public Relations
To judge the impact the 2011 Illinois volleyball squad had on Fighting Illini fans across the continent and beyond, one just had to look at the thousands of fans who met at a number of local establishments to root on their favorite team in their quest for a national championship. Fans who previously had just a casual interest in the sport were glued to the television and had their hearts racing on every point.
The national ESPN2 audience witnessed one of the epic points in the history of the sport, perhaps the greatest rally the game has seen, especially with what was riding on it. It came at match point of the national semifinal between Illinois and USC. The Illini and Women of Troy took turns taking shots at each other. Some 55 touches, 18 over the net volleys and 68 seconds of electric play later, the Illini completed a five-set win over the nation's top-ranked team and earned a spot in the national championship match. The point got a spot on Sportscenter's "Top Plays" that night and continues to have fans talking about it.
The point was the pinnacle in an historic season for Illinois who broke through a number of barriers.
The Illini began the year 20-0, the second most wins to start a season in school history. It resulted in the school's first number one ranking in the AVCA Coaches poll. The wide-open national race was reflected in six different teams reaching the top spot, but none held it as long as Illinois (four weeks).
For the first time since 1992, Illinois played two home matches in front of near capacity crowds of 4,000-plus. In Illinois' first weekend at number one, a sell-out crowd of 4,261 saw a battle of the last two unbeateans in Illinois and Purdue and the Illini eke out a tight four-set victory over the Boilermakers.
For much of Penn State's 20 years in the Big Ten, the conference championship has gone through Happy Valley, but for the first time ever, Illinois swept the season series from the Nittany Lions.
If the battle with USC was the defining match of the post-season, the first meeting with Penn State was that for the 2011 regular season. Over 5,200 fans watched the match which lasted nearly three hours, and, in the end, the visiting Illini came away with an epic five-set victory.
Illinois hailed perhaps the best outside hitting combination in the country in seniors Colleen Ward, who became Illinois' fifth first-team All-American, and Michelle Bartsch, who earned third-team All-America honors for the second-straight year.
In reality, though, several members of the team took turns taking center stage throughout the year. Redshirt freshman Anna Dorn did so against Penn State, with four blocks in each of the fourth and fifth sets, tying an Illinois record with 13 block assists in the match.
Bartsch helped the Illini get off to a hot start to the season, winning MVP of three in-season tournaments, including the State Farm Illini Classic, which saw the Illini battle back from two sets down to defeat 21st-ranked Dayton. Bartsch had a combined 64 kills and 59 digs while hitting .273 in that tournament. The win over Dayton was one of six for the Illini that went to five sets in that 20-0 start.
The Illini had the top-ranked RPI the entire season, thanks in large to part to a challenging schedule. Illinois won a school record 11 matches against ranked opponents, playing a school-best 15 matches against top-25 clubs as well as 27 matches against 19 NCAA qualifying teams.
Bartsch and fellow senior Rachel Feldman helped the Illini post a 57-6 record at Huff Hall in their four years, including a 16-1 mark in 2011, which saw 42,068 come through the doors at the historic arena, the second most in school history.
Illinois earned the No. 3 seed for the NCAA Tournament and started its run to the Final Four with convincing straight set wins over Central Michigan and Marquette at Huff, bringing the Illini's all-time postseason home record to 22-3.
For the second-straight year, six Big Ten teams made the Sweet 16 and three of them converged at the Gainesville, Fla., Regional. The Illini met Ohio State in the Regional Semifinal, a round that had been a roadblock for Illinois each of the past three seasons. After dropping the first set, Illinois won a fierce battle with the Buckeyes,
Jennifer Beltran, whose 571 digs in 2011 were second only to her 623 output from 2010 in Illini history, had perhaps her best effort as a collegian with 26 digs vs. the Buckeyes. Beltran later set a new Illinois postseason mark with 32 in the national semifinal win over USC.
Illinois would not be denied in its quest for its first Final Four appearance in 23 years. Facing the host Florida Gators in the Regional Final, the Illini posted a four-set win behind a career match from Ward. The former Gator had 23 kills in 42 swings, hitting .500 in earning the Regional MVP. Bartsch and Beltran joined Ward on the All-Regional Tournament team.
While the Final Four meeting with USC may best be remembered nationally for the final point, the match had some of the best volleyball on display the entire night. Freshman Liz McMahon, whose 6-6 frame on the right side helped provide a huge blocking presence all year, had five kills in eight swings in the fifth set alone in helping the Orange and Blue advance to the title match.
For much of the night, it was a chess match to try to get the big block with McMahon paired up with USC's Alex Jupiter. The USC outside hitter was the national Player of the Year and she demonstrated it several times with 32 kills in 83 swings and a .241 hitting percentage, but Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said a big difference was his team having more weapons than the Women of Troy.
For just the second time in school history, two different players contributed 20-20 performances. Ward paved the way with 27 kills in 71 swings, the second most by an Illini player in a postseason match. She added a career-best 22 digs while Bartsch had 22 kills and 22 digs. That marked just the second time that an Illini tandem has posted 20-20 performance in match.
Junior setter Annie Luhrsen, playing full-time for the first time in three years, helped engineer a high-powered Illinois offense down the stretch of the season and joined Ward and Bartsch on the all-tournament team for the NCAA Finals. Under Luhrsen's guidance, Illinois hit over .300 in seven of the 10 matches leading up to the Final Four, including .340 in a three-set win over Penn State in that rematch and a .338 clip in the Regional Final win over Florida.
Despite the 32-5 overall record, the Illinois faithful still ponder just how close their team came to claiming the title. The Illini came back from 20-13 down in the second set of the championship match with UCLA to win it and tie match. The Illini then had two set points in the third in an attempt to take a 2-1 lead in the match, but unfortunately, the Bruins scored the final four points of the set and went on to claim that frame and the championship in four sets.
The loss didn't overshadow the list of accomplishments for Illinois, who finished a school-best second in the final coaches' poll. The Big Ten honored Bartsch and Ward as all-conference, McMahon on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team and Feldman with the Sportsmanship Award. Erin Johnson, who led the Illini in attack percentage (.328), joined Luhrsen and Dorn in earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week throughout the year.
Several players reached milestones. Beltran surpassed the 1,000-dig mark and sits fifth on the all-time career digs list with 1,194 through two seasons. Bartsch ends her career fourth in block assists (422), seventh in kills (1,644), 10th in digs (1,035) and second in attacks (4,776) on the school's career lists. Dorn (178) and Johnson (149) are third and sixth, respectively, in single-season block assists with Dorn's 183 total blocks third for a single season.
Illinois players also got it done in the classroom with nine student-athletes earning Academic All-Big Ten accolades -- Courtney Abrahamovich, Dorn, Feldman, Jessica Jendryk, Johnson, Luhrsen, Tayler Onion, Ward, and Jackie Wolfe.
Besides the success on the court, it was the likeability of the players and staff that made watching Illini volleyball so much fun throughout the year.
"What I'm going to remember most is how much I enjoyed coaching this team," Hambly said on the season to remember.
The team created quite a buzz around Illini Nation, one that doesn't figure to end any time soon.